Ernest Cobell Estell, Sr., African-American pastor and influential Dallas civic leader, was born in Decherd, Tennessee, to Sarah Estell on January 12, 1897. As a young man, Estell moved to St. Louis and worked in a coal mine. He began to preach part-time in St. Louis. Later he graduated from Lamoyne College in Chicago and Simmons Theological Institute in Nashville.
Estell’s first pastorate was Bethel Baptist Church in Drakesboro, Kentucky. In 1931 Estell moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he served as pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church for six and a half years. There he married Lee Ella Payne from McLean County, Kentucky. Estell attended the World Baptist Alliance meeting in Berlin, Germany, in 1934.
Ernest Estell was “a dynamic preacher,” and he was very active in involving his church and himself in denominational organizations at the local, state, and national levels. He invited nationally-known leaders to speak at his church. In 1935 the Tabernacle Baptist Church, under the leadership of Reverend Estell, hosted the National Baptist Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress at the Dayton Memorial Hall.
In December 1937 Estell moved to Dallas to become the pastor of St. John Baptist Church. Soon thereafter, he facilitated the construction of a new building for the church, a $1 million project. The church grew to more than 4,000 members and became the largest African-American church in the South. Between 1,000 and 2,500 people attended services each Sunday. Reverend Estell’s motto for St. John Baptist Church was “Here, Christianity is a business, not a sideline.”
Ernest Estell was founder and president of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance in Dallas and also guided its development “in several Texas cities to further black unity and support for the state wide Negro organizations.”
Reverend Estell worked to promote a peaceful civil rights movement and exerted a calming influence. He was a member of the original Dallas “Committee of Fourteen,” a biracial group that promoted a peaceful approach to integration. Estell said, “Demonstrations have reached a point of diminishing returns and now cost the country and the Negro people more in money, goodwill and lasting progress than we can gain in economic, social and cultural progress through direct action.” He was active in the NAACP and was presented a life certificate by that organization in 1948. In October 1964 the Dallas City Council passed a special resolution that cited Reverend Estell “for his work in improving the relationship between the races here and crediting him with being a factor in the success of integration in Dallas.”
Estell was very instrumental in relocating Bishop College from Marshall, Texas, to Dallas in 1961. He was chairman of the Executive Committee of Bishop’s board of trustees. A Dallas Times Herald article reported, “A trustee of Bishop College for 15 years, he [Estell] has received honorary doctorates of divinity and law from the college.” He was also a trustee of the American Theological Seminary in Nashville.
Ernest Estell was a charter member of the Interracial Committee of Dallas. He also was founder and president of the Dallas Council of Negro Organizations. Reverend Estell was a member of the Baptist World Alliance’s board of directors. He was a member of the Dallas City Council Planning Committee. He served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
Ernest Estell was a thirty-third-degree Mason, a grand prelate of the Knights of Pythias Judiciary of Texas, and a patron of Blue Lodge No. 163 of the Order of the Eastern Star.
For twenty years, Estell was director general of the Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress. He was a board member of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., and president of the Texas State Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention of Texas. He was president of the Dallas Council of Negro Organizations and a board member of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce. He served as president of the Texas District Baptist Association and vice president of the Baptist World Alliance. Estell was awarded a certificate from the State Association of Teachers, expressing its appreciation to him for initiating a lawsuit to equalize teachers’ salaries. Other honors include an award of merit from the Pontiac, Michigan, Pastors Association (1953) and the Human Relations Award from the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce (1962).
Estell initiated a plan at his church “to sponsor low-rent apartment housing under federal programs.” His dream was realized in June 1964 when the St. John Luxury Apartments $3 million housing project was completed. Highland Village, a twenty-three-building apartment complex, was renamed Estell Village in 1965 in a posthumous honor for its founder.
Ernest and Lee Ella Estell had nine children: five sons and four daughters. After serving more than forty years as a pastor, Estell died in Dallas on November 16, 1964, following an illness of several months duration. He had served on President John Kennedy’s (and President Lyndon Johnson’s) Committee on Civil Rights. In August 1964 he had attended a meeting of that committee in the Rose Garden of the White House. Following Reverend Estell’s death, his widow received telegrams of condolence from both President Johnson and Governor John Connally. He was buried in Carver Memorial Park cemetery.